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What Phillip Coutinho’s Move to Aston Villa Can Teach Us All about Career Happiness

The Influencers 498 Add to collection

Don’t worry too much about how cool or famous your place of work is, says Kev Chesters, strategy partner at Harbour Collective

What Phillip Coutinho’s Move to Aston Villa Can Teach Us All about Career Happiness

(Spoiler alert: this is NOT a post about football. I promise)

For those not in the least bit interested in football I should start with a bit of context. This week a Brazilian footballer called Phillip Coutinho chose to leave one of the biggest clubs in the world (Barcelona) to play, at least temporarily, for a much smaller team (Aston Villa) who aren’t exactly sparkly and sexy.

Coutinho is a big deal. His 2018 transfer to Barcelona remains the third most expensive in football history at a whopping €145m. Barcelona are one of the most recognisable names in world football with nearly 100 major trophies to their name. Aston Villa? Well, let’s just say that they have struggled to win trophies since Bucks Fizz were in the charts. And most people outside of British football circles probably won’t know that much about them.

So why am I talking about this? And what do I think this can teach all of us about finding some career happiness?

To start with, I have always found it curious anyway (almost fascinating) quite how much moaning* people in our industry do about their jobs in ‘adland.’ *Note: I’m talking here about the day-to-day grumbling of the day job, not about legitimate and important issues the industry needs to address. 

I find this moaning especially strange when it comes from people who are mostly well educated/reasonably well paid so therefore have the choice to do something else if they really hate it so much. It’s worth remembering that 90% of people out there aren’t even lucky enough to have the luxury of moaning about their work. Now I think I must be either quite weird or quite lucky because I have always enjoyed my job. From being an account exec through to a junior/senior planner to management positions to business ownership, I have always found my job interesting and mostly rather enjoyable.

So back to Coutinho. Why did he leave the lovely sunny climes of Las Ramblas for the less attractive and less sunny surroundings of Great Britain’s second city – and what can we all learn from it? Here it is.

The #1 reason for his choice was his new ‘gaffer’, Steven Gerrard, who happens to be a close old colleague. They played together in the same Liverpool team for nearly three years between 2012-2015. Apparently, the lure of working with and for a trusted friend for whom he had great respect mattered more than how sexy the name of the club was, or even potentially the lure of greater lucre elsewhere. Phillip wasn’t enjoying himself at Barca, and his big money move hadn’t worked out as he’d hoped. So, he’s chosen to join a club for work with and for someone he clearly respects and gets on with. I think this is a really strong lesson for people in how they might find greater happiness in their careers, regardless of what that career is.

I have worked for some big-name agencies in my time – Ogilvy, Saatchi & Saatchi and Wieden + Kennedy. I enjoyed most of my time at all of them. But by far and away the most enjoyable two parts of my career were my times as CSO at mcgarrybowen, and these last three years setting up and running Harbour. This got me thinking, Coutinho-inspired. What was it that made me happier when I was at those smaller, less ‘famous’ places? Or what was it that made me enjoy some/most of my time at the ‘bigger’ agencies?  And it comes down to the people surrounding me, not the reputation or size of the company.

In my career I have come across a lot of folks – junior and senior - for whom how 'cool' or how 'famous' the agency name was seemed to be their primary driver of choice. I have also noticed, not always but often, that this doesn’t seem to make them very happy. Apologies for another football analogy but I think this is a bit like those young players who sign for Chelsea or Man City - because they’re seduced by how sexy the name above the door is – only to sit on the bench for three seasons before moving on. Where you work won’t necessarily make you happy. Coutinho went to the most famous club in the world, but it didn’t necessarily translate to work satisfaction. He’s now chosen to work with or for an INDIVIDUAL he clearly loves and respects.

The most important thing in choosing where to work in my opinion - more than how sexy the name of the business sounds - is the people you work FOR, the person(s) you work TO and the folks you work WITH. So whatever stage of career you are at I would suggest that it’s more important to think of these three things.

Who you work for: Seek out and find inspirational leaders & bosses. Look for somewhere where there is a leader with a vision that you share or a value system you recognise and buy into (I’ve had some great leaders - Amanda Mackenzie, Annette King, Mike Dodds - and a couple of absolute howlers). These leaders can be found in many and varied companies – they don’t have to always be in the pages of Campaign or in those ‘lists’.

Who you work to: Find an amazing, empathetic line manager. In my career I have attributed any success to the brilliant mentors I have had, especially when I was junior. I’d call out one of my first, Louise Mulford at Ogilvy, as someone who cajoled, supported, inspired, educated and occasionally bollocked me to great effect.

Who you work with: This is the most vital; the people you see every day. Find (or stay in) a place where you are surrounded by lovely, supportive, and empathetic colleagues. When I joined mcgarrybowen I had my amazing partners, Paul Jordan and Angus Macadam. Their support, and the fun we had together every day, was worth ten times the famous reels or Cannes Lions that I’d had in my previous two jobs (mind you, we won a few Lions together too.) My time as CSO at Ogilvy was amazing when I was working with a gang of incredible, inspirational partners – Clare, Mick and Charlie. Once they were no longer there, I left after a few weeks. There was no point hanging around. The people you are surrounded with daily make all the difference. 

And that brings me to my current job, as owner and partner at Harbour. It’s hardly a famous or household name (yet). It’s not even an agency in the traditional sense of the word. But I chose it because of my two brilliant partners, and now the extra three partners that we have added. So, I get to work for & with amazingly talented people who I love and respect, every day. It makes all the difference to your mental health.

So, this is what Phillip Coutinho choosing Birmingham over Barcelona has taught me. And I hope it will teach you too – regardless of where you are in your career.

Don’t worry too much about the fame and sexy bits (no one outside the advertising echo chambers cares). Worry instead about who your leader is, worry about who your immediate line manager is & mostly worry about the people you’ll see every day. Be more radical with the choice of where you work. Don’t just take the most trodden and obvious path. Oh, and if you really don’t like your current job and you have a degree and experience then leave it and do something else. Most people in the world don’t have that luxury. 

See, it wasn’t about football after all. Told you.


Kev Chesters is strategy partner at Harbour Collective

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Harbour Collective LTD, Mon, 10 Jan 2022 12:07:00 GMT